Brideshead re-revisited

by John Q on June 19, 2021

While we are talking about tangentially religious topics, it might be fun to look at the question of Boris Johnson’s nuptials. It’s been stated in seemingly authoritative terms that it was OK for the twice-divorced Johnson to be married in a Catholic ceremony, because his previous marriages were outside the church.

My knowledge of this question comes from the TV version of Brideshead Revisited[1], where a minor character, engaged to a Catholic, jumps through all sorts of hoops to convert to Catholicism, then discovers that he is disqualified by a previous divorce, arising from a non-Catholic marriage.

Things have loosened up quite a bit since Evelyn Waugh was around, so I thought these rules might have changed. But it seems clear that this is not the case. The central point is that the Catholic Church accepts non-Catholics marriages as valid, in the absence of the conditions that would justify an annulment. Indeed, if it was the actual teaching of the Church that all married non-Catholics were living in sin, we would probably have heard about it before now.

Where does this leave Boris, and the Church? I Am Not A Canon Lawyer, but my guess is that, even if the marriage was contrary to church law, it would still be valid and binding. But it certainly seems that the great and powerful get special treatment from the Church, as they always have done.

Not always favorable treatment, however. It looks as if Joe Biden may be singled out from millions of other pro-choice Catholics for exclusion from Catholic communion. That would set an interesting precedent.

fn1. I read the book first, but I remember this episode from the TV series



Pejar 06.19.21 at 6:51 am

I think there’s a subtly being missed here, which is pointed out by your final link. For Catholics (and only for Catholics), marriages outside the church are invalid and can be annulled.

Johnson was baptised Catholic, and although he later converted to Anglicanism, this is meaningless to the church (once a Catholic…). This means his non-Catholic marriages are invalid and he can still have a Catholic wedding – unlike the character in Brideshead who wasn’t Catholic when he was wed.

What I’m not 100% clear on is this: Say one of Johnson’s ex-wives wasn’t in any way Catholic, but has now converted and wants to marry in the church. Could she use the fact that Johnson was Catholic when they married to do so? The logic seems to follow – after all surely the marriage can’t be valid for one party but not for the other! Still, it does feel a bit odd.


Neville Morley 06.19.21 at 8:02 am

Likewise not a canon lawyer, but I think the cunning loophole – and this does appear to be an outrageous bit of special treatment – is Johnson’s own religious status. As a baptised Catholic, he’s regarded as Catholic despite getting confirmed as an Anglican; as such, he should have applied for official dispensation to marry a non-Catholic, for both his first two wives. Because he didn’t, those marriages are not regarded as sacramental, whereas a marriage between two Anglicans is regarded as sacramental and so divorce is not recognised, hence the Brideshead problem, and a marriage between an Anglican and a Catholic with dispensation is regarded as sacramental, and a marriage between two non-Christians is regarded as valid even if not sacramental.


SamChevre 06.19.21 at 10:45 am

I Am Not A Canon Lawyer, but my guess is that, even if the marriage was contrary to church law, it would still be valid and binding. But it certainly seems that the great and powerful get special treatment from the Church, as they always have done.

My priest is a canon lawyer (and someone I enjoy talking to), so I’ve heard more than the average Catholic about this.

A marriage between people who can’t marry (which includes any marriage where on party is already married to someone else) is not valid, not binding–it’s not a marriage at all in Canon Law.

But the grounds for declaring that a marriage was not entered into with full intent to marry as the church defines marriage are so numerous, and some are so subjective, that something like 98% of people who divorce, then say that “that marriage was never real because reasons”, are able to get a church declaration that it wasn’t a real marriage and they are free to marry. In 1960, I’d expect that there was significant advantages to power in getting a marriage declared null; at this point, that’s done so freely that it probably isn’t.


oldster 06.19.21 at 12:13 pm

“But it certainly seems that the great and powerful get special treatment from the Church, as they always have done.”

I Am Not a British Historian, but I seem to recall that not every monarch has received the special treatment concerning marriage that they sought from the Catholic Church?

But perhaps we should not mention the parallel — BoJo would be only to happy to repudiate Rome and form a Church of Boris.


Tim Worstall 06.19.21 at 12:14 pm

There might even be a reason why a useful synonym for very finely granulated logic chopping is “Jesuitical”.

At least so the Benedictines used to teach us…..


hix 06.19.21 at 3:15 pm

First, Boris Johnson is catholic ?????????!!!!!!
Second, absolutely, annulment is generously declared whenever they want it for the very special Catholics. That is not a trivial issue for everyone and goes beyond possible social stigma where I’m living. Millions still work for church owned, but almost exclusively government financed, institutions. Those still do, among other impossible things, occasionally fire people for remarrying and get away with it (slowly changing).


Tm 06.19.21 at 4:07 pm

Doesn’t the UK still have the law on the book that the PM can’t be Catholic? A shame if they amended it…


Minivet 06.19.21 at 4:24 pm

If Johnson had received Catholic annulments for his previous non-Catholic marriages, would this be a matter of record, or could it have happened sub rosa?


John Quiggin 06.19.21 at 8:37 pm

Pejar @1 Good catch! I missed this point.


Neville Morley 06.19.21 at 9:00 pm

Pedantically, I don’t believe there has ever been a law specifically barring Roman Catholics from being Prime Minister; until the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, they were forbidden from becoming MPs. It is still against the law for the monarch to be RC – and also for an RC to advise the monarch on the appointment of bishops, which law Johnson has in fact already broken…


J-D 06.20.21 at 5:15 am

Pedantically …

Thank you for sharing the burden.

… It is still against the law for … an RC to advise the monarch on the appointment of bishops, …

Section 18 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (UK), as amended:

It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise … touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England, or in the Church of Scotland; and if any such person shall offend in the premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.

…, which law Johnson has in fact already broken

Ah, but has he, though?


reason 06.20.21 at 9:10 am

We live in a new age of lawlessness. Haven’t you noticed?


Seekonk 06.20.21 at 3:06 pm

Is it mean-spirited to hope that the beef between the US bishops and Prez Biden gets messy?


J, not that one 06.20.21 at 4:29 pm

No one pays attention to the lengthy discussions in BR of how simply unfair it is to have to be an upper class Catholic debutante when there are no princes your age and no sufficiently wealthy Catholic bachelors. And then your fiancé is too dumb to realize he can’t convert before he ropes you in! Just awful!

Or to the long chapters about driving around looking for socialists to beat up.


Alan Peakall 06.20.21 at 9:18 pm

I don’t think the Wee Frees gave special treatment (favourable or unfavourable) to Lord Mackay back in the 1980s; each side just stated their positions and they parted ways – much more the credit of the latter.

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